Defenders Of The Earth: a cartoon that should be a movie

Feature Philip Tibbetts 3 Jun 2014 - 07:00

Now we've had an Avengers movie, surely it's time for the original superhero team to make their way to the cinema screen?

Some readers may be fortunate to remember the evocative 80s action cartoon Defenders Of The Earth. If so, it's likely that you recall it fondly. The show was typical 80s cartoon fare, with robots, lasers, a tie-in toy line and irritating sidekicks. But the central principle was actually pretty unique and, if anything, it gets better in the mind of the audience as we mature in our geeky sensibilities.

The show brought together some of the major characters from the pulp era of early superheroics, namely Flash Gordon, the Phantom, Mandrake the Magician and his ally Lothar. The three series that brought these characters to life all began between 1934 and 1936. Indeed Mandrake is sometimes billed as the first modern, empowered, superhero.

Even though the Defenders Of The Earth team took half a century to form we can still think of them as the first Avengers style team. This concept couples the nerdish love of retro with the equally geekish adoration for the high action superhero ensemble – both elements that are good at parting fans from their cash. The idea of bringing the Defenders Of The Earth together was simply shimmering in cult potential.

This is why it’s almost a shame that this same potential is first channelled into an average 1980s cartoon. Without wanting to ruin any readers childhoods the series doesn’t hold up today beyond the nostalgia, the surprisingly exciting theme tune (with words by Stan Lee no less) and the novelty of the concept itself.

That’s not to say the show was bad, after all there is a reason that it has lived on in the memory so fondly, for so many. It’s a pretty good show – for the type of show it was – an 80s children’s action cartoon. Other than a couple of story arcs, and some unintentionally funny heavy handed drink and drugs episodes, the story telling doesn’t go beyond the usual light frothy rompy adventures that you’d expect.

It has to be said that the series does not really capitalise of the concept of its central characters. This is largely the failing of the characterisation and writing, not helped by the addition of a raft of young sidekicks that only serve to dilute the adventures of the actual Defenders. The most obvious single victim of the writing is Flash Gordon who has all the charisma sucked out of him as the unfailing, conformal hero.

Of the remaining three Defenders the writers seem to have trouble differentiating two of them – Phantom and Lothar. The first is used as a fighter who is quite strong and the second is a strong man who is good at fighting. And when the former of these two can call on the ‘power of ten tigers’ power-up sequence (which, incidentally, rarely seems to show all ten tigers) he ends up overshadowing the latter. This no doubt explains why the Phantom was really the break out character for the show and that to many the ‘power of ten tigers’ is a fundamental part of his skill set despite never appearing in any other version of the hero.

So whilst being a bit of light fun the series never really delivers on the promised potential. It is a generic 80s cartoon with some interesting characters in, which makes no real effort to explore anything beyond laser blasts, punches and illusions. Although nostalgically remembered it did not do well enough, unlikely contemporaries such as Real Ghostbusters or even Thundercats, to warrant more than a single season and as such the series and the concept has languished in sentimental reminiscence.

And there the idea lay until 2013 when Dynamite comics not only resurrected it but fulfilled its long promised potential in a five part miniseries by Marc Laming and Jeff Parker called Kings Watch.

Whilst Flash, Phantom, Mandrake and Lothar had appeared together on page previously as part of the Defenders Of The Earth tie-in comic, this time a completely fresh approach has been taken. Although it uses those same four characters there is no other link to the previous iteration of the team, beyond an appropriately fan-pleasing, tongue-in-cheek reference.

Kings Watch is effectively a reboot, but one that achieves the difficult balance of being both respectful to the source material and not afraid to make some big calls in telling its own story. Characterisation is very strong here with the interplay of personalities and powers really showing potential that has been inherent in this team. Parker even finds a particularly pleasing way of getting around the issue of Lothar and Phantom’s similar skill sets. A young and impulsive Flash is shown at the very start of his heroic career, Mandrake is a man haunted by tragic events of the past leaving Lothar back in a more normal life whilst the Phantom is suitably gritty and mysterious.

The story rips along at a cracking pace over the five issues too bringing in each character and sub-plot fairly seamlessly. Even enemies and mythology from each component of the team are not only introduced smoothly but woven into the story itself. The stakes are raised progressively over the series that leads to a finale that is not only powerfully climactic but also sets up the future directions of Flash, Mandrake, Lothar and the Phantom.

Kings Watch has clearly set up new storylines for its team members but in such compelling style that it would be no surprise if elements of this new origin story became popular. It does a great job of enticing the reader to find out what happens next as well as being a gripping and fun read itself. There can be no doubt that Kings Watch is the story that the potential of Defenders Of The Earth has always deserved.

In the past few weeks we have learnt that both Flash Gordon and the Phantom are in line for cinematic reboots. This of course has got our fandom reflexes going at the prospect of perhaps seeing them both, along with Mandrake and Lothar, feature in an ensemble sequel. In the post-Avengers Assemble world with even DC scrabbling to catch-up this seems like an obvious step to make.

However Kings Watch should be the blueprint, if not the basis, for the silver screen adventures of our heroes. Obviously the story has clear cinematic potential but there are also strong commercial and logistical opportunities. The story avoids the pitfall of hoping that three single movies are all successful before allowing for a Defenders Of The Earth film by bringing the heroes together for their first outing and simultaneously setting up individual stories for them each after that. This is effectively the reverse of Avengers Assemble but now the idea of wider cinematic universes has been established by Marvel, Defenders Of The Earth can benefit by cutting to the chase rather than attempting to expensively and hurriedly emulate it.

Of course the prospect of this seems remote for now, and likely at the mercy of character rights issues and the risk averse planning of studio executives. One can only hope that somewhere in Hollywood that someone might see and seize this opportunity. But in the meantime we can finally rest easy that Parker and Laming have fulfilled the potential of the Defenders Of The Earth in their Kings Watch series. A cinema adaptation of this would only be fitting for the characters but the comic itself should be a recommended read to any geek who once grew up on the cartoon (and who probably still can’t get the theme tune out of their head). 

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